Lives That Shaped The Legend: A Unique Look at the People Who Made John Wayne "Duke"

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“Throughout his career, my father was commended for his many accomplishments, which were usually chalked up to his unwavering drive to succeed. While his work ethic was indeed the stuff of legend, John Wayne always made sure to acknowledge the fact that he would not be who he was without the support of so many others. Whether he was giving the cast and crew a commemorative gift, offering advice to a young costar or taking my siblings and I along to shooting locations, Duke was working diligently to show his gratitude to those who contributed to his success in any way, shape or form. And if he were still around today, I know he would also say a big “thank you” to readers like you for keeping his memory alive.” —Ethan Wayne


Loved Ones

With an innate gift for the business much like his father’s, Michael Wayne produced some of the legend’s greatest films.

On a family trip to Ireland for the filming of his father’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man, Michael was given the chance to work as a production assistant. The job ignited the young man’s passion for working behind the scenes; soon after, he was able to explore the role of producer even further thanks to his father founding Batjac Productions. When the time came to make his family-focused 1963 comedy McLintock!, Duke figured the “family” aspect of the production should exist behind the scenes as well, and so he hired Michael as producer. “He was 27 years old and given the opportunity to produce a John Wayne film, which was, indeed, a big thrill and challenge,” Gretchen Wayne, Duke’s daughter- in-law and widow of son Michael, told Turner Classic Movies. Proving himself a chip off the old block, Michael rose to the occasion and finished the film both under-budget and ahead of schedule.

Even in the years after John Wayne’s passing, Michael Wayne ensured his father’s legendary name would live on in the most positive ways possible. In an interview with AARP, Duke’s daughter Melina Wayne explained how a final wish from her father was fulfilled in grand fashion: “When [my father] was dying, he turned to my late brother Michael and said: ‘Whatever you do, use my name for the benefit of the public. If it weren’t for the public, I wouldn’t be here; you wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have had the life we had.’ And that was the beginning of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.”


Coworkers and Confidants

With her ability to match Duke’s commitment and charisma, Maureen O’Hara helped propel the legend’s career as well as her own.

With an early life that mirrored John Wayne’s in several ways, it’s no surprise Maureen O’Hara became one of the legend’s favorite co-stars and closest friends. Growing up in Ireland, the young O’Hara was a gifted athlete who gradually transitioned into the performing arts. And just like Duke, 1939 was the year she truly broke out on the big screen—after coming to the United States to star as Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, O’Hara was signed to RKO pictures.

A decade after being introduced to American audiences, O’Hara would share the screen with John Wayne for the first time in John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950). While the chemistry between the two was apparent in that film, it would be nothing short of palpable in The Quiet Man (1952) two years later. Whether the two were sharing cinematic smooches (The Quiet Man), slinging literal mud at each other (1963’s McLintock!) or reuniting as estranged spouses (1971’s Big Jake), it was clear O’Hara was a key ingredient in taking Duke’s work to new heights.

As the actress recalled after Duke’s passing, “Our on-screen chemistry was so magical because Duke never had to defer to me as a woman. I was strong enough to stand up to him and be his equal.” And John Wayne indeed viewed O’Hara as both his equal and friend, as the icon once praised her as “the greatest guy I ever knew.” The actress would reciprocate that notion in grand fashion: in 1979, she and a few other friends of the legend testified before Congress asking that John Wayne be bestowed the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.

Paying it Forward

After meeting John Wayne as an aspiring actor, Sam Elliott went on to enjoy a prolific career and gain a reputation for his rugged individualism.

Much like the Western icon he so admired at the time, Sam Elliott got his start in films by working as an extra. In the same year Duke was turning in his Oscar-winning role in True Grit (1969), Elliott was appearing in another Western Classic as “card player #2” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The young actor had grown up a fan of the genre thanks to trips to the movie theater to see John Wayne classics such as The Searchers (1956); and soon, he would get the chance to meet the legend himself in a brief but unforgettable moment. 

As Duke was in the process of making what would be his final film, The Shootist (1976), Elliott—who was at a turning point in his career having landed a recurring role in the miniseries Once an Eagle—got the chance to meet the star. “I went and got John Wayne’s autograph. I think it was his wardrobe man, Luster Bayless, who showed me into his trailer,” the actor said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “I went in and talked with him for a few minutes. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he knew I was an aspiring actor.”

Having his craft acknowledged by one of the best to ever do it proved impactful. Elliott later went on to star in popular Westerns of his own, including The Quick and the Dead (1987) and Tombstone (1993) and he also flexed his acting muscles beyond the genre. His signature timbre got him a gig as the voice of Smokey Bear, and he eventually turned in career-defining performances in films such as The Big Lebowski (1998), We Were Soldiers (2002) and A Star is Born (2018). When Sam Elliott’s career is all said and done, he’ll likely look back on it with a sentiment similar to his enigmatic Stranger character in The Big Lebowski, thinking, “It was a pretty good story.”


Read these stories and so many more in John Wayne: The Official Collector's Edition Volume 41.